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On December 31, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued a decision amending Rule 1.510 of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure making a major change in long-standing procedure. Through this amendment, the Court will align Florida’s summary judgment standard with that of the federal courts pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Notably, this amendment narrows Florida’s concept of what constitutes a genuine issue of material fact and should make summary judgment appropriate in more circumstances than currently in state court. This amendment is effective May 1, 2021, and the Court invites public commentary in the implementation of the new rule.

Authors: Ed Mullins

Current Rule and State Standard

As written, Florida’s current summary judgment rule is virtually identical to the federal rule. Florida’s rule requires summary judgment when a party shows that there is “no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.510(c). Similarly, the federal rule requires summary judgment if there is “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

Nonetheless, Florida and federal courts have applied their respective rules differently. In justifying its amendment to Rule 1.510, the Court raised three major differences resulting from Florida’s present summary judgment standard. First, the Court noted that Florida courts continuously have declined to recognize the strikingly similar standards for motions for summary judgment and for directed verdict. Despite the procedural differences between these motions, their legal inquiries are the same and the Court noted that, as in federal court, they should be treated as such. Second, the Court, in prior decisions, had interpreted Rule 1.510 to require the movant to disprove the non-movant’s theory of the case and affirmatively address alleged issues of facts, even if the ultimate burden of persuasion on those issues rests with the non-movant. Meanwhile, federal courts permit the movant to simply point out the absence of evidence to support the non-movant’s case. Often, this required the movant to “prove a negative,” often with no evidence to point to. Third, Florida courts have applied a more expansive definition of “no genuine issue as to any material fact” for purposes of Rule 1.510. Florida courts recognize issues of material fact with the existence of any competent evidence. This has prevented summary judgment even if the evidence is untrustworthy or trivial. Federal courts, on the other hand, require that such evidence be credible and substantial enough that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant.

Altogether, the Court noted that these issues have created inefficiencies for litigants in Florida state courts by preventing disposition of a case on summary judgment, while a nearby federal court would have resolved the dispute without the need for a trial. The Court therefore noted that the Florida courts’ current application of Rule 1.510 failed to achieve the objective of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure: “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.010.